Alignment with World Standards
The current system set in place is limited and doesn’t allow for the full use of diversity as it is a system built to use the strengths that were traditionally used for a magnitude of years. This seniority hierarchy system, limited personal expression, and uniform identity will hinder the growth of Japan in the future as the population cannot keep up with the system, and the global markets are fighting against it. The way forward for Japan is to embrace its corporate culture with its loyalty and respected work ethic and to adopt new fresh ideas and utilize the opportunities given. Rather than attempt to conform systems to “fit” the “Japanese way,” it is critical that Japanese companies see this as an opportunity to take the best qualities from Western ideologies and working corporate culture and add them to their own.
Implementation of Communication Improvements
A general piece of advice is that everybody familiarizes themselves with their own culture and use outside resources such as the “Culture Map” by Erin Myers. Once you “assess yourself against your own culture,” you can compare yours against the Japanese culture. This will allow you to reach “under the surface of the iceberg.” By involving oneself in personal research and forth-going understanding, a common consensus can be achieved, creating a common language and communication level.
There is an overall consensus between foreigners who have multi-year experience working in Japan: patience is key. The message is clear, “watch, listen, and learn.” The overarching message regarding communication is to listen and learn about your environment before attempting to work within it. Take in your surroundings and recognize that Japanese corporate culture is by nature indirect, similar to the language and social etiquette. To experience a barrier breakdown, it is critical to listen and to “become part of the system.”
Lastly, a lot of information gets lost in translation to Japanese. But the same also applies to Japanese who are about to learn communication in English. Through their education, the Japanese usually have a high-level English proficiency. Unfortunately, English knowledge is extremely passive and not used in daily conversation. It is crucial to activate passive knowledge continuously. For example, by implementing corporate rules to conduct meetings in English as soon as foreigners are present. The reliance on translation alone will not suffice in the future if Japanese companies plan to internationalize; it has become critical for the adoption of the English language to be taken more seriously. English classes and training should be encouraged, and time should be allocated towards it with importance.
The fear of losing face can be tackled with an encouragement to use English in more casual settings; without practice, employees will fall behind and feel embarrassed to speak English. The shame and embarrassment of making mistakes in learning a new language can easily be tackled by normalizing the process and openly assisting those in learning. Equally, learning Japanese for foreign workers is critical. Japanese courses for ex-pat employees should be offered before their transfer to Japan by international or domestic companies planning on hiring foreign staff. In a management position, it is critical to offer support in learning a new language and to encourage activities that make learning easier, both on the linguistic and cultural context level. The indirect attitudes adopted can be modified and altered from within by working alongside the attitude and taking a “top-down” approach to change.
Gender Equality Improvements
By examining large Japanese corporations and their response to the Equal Employment Opportunity Law passage in 1985, it is clear that the laws are both weak and didn’t provide enough regulation to ensure the protection of women in the workplace. The lack of regulation and consistent top-down insurance policy caused the policy to facilitate minimal change.
“Don’t be a Bond girl for James Bond. Be Jane Bond yourself” was a quote given by one of our members as a message to Japanese women. The role of a male in Japan is so prominent as a position of power it becomes expected for women to adopt more masculine traits to inherit power rather than pursue it in their feminine state. To be “Jane Bond” means to be on-par with the men rather than strive for a supporting role. Societal expectations need to change. This can be achieved via adopting training targeted towards women and introducing career fast track paths for women who would like to take on more powerful responsibility roles. With that being said, it is also critical for women to have maternity leave and for paternity leave to be introduced. When parenting is normalized as a gender-equal task, the traditional notions of maternity are removed.
Furthermore, Japan has a gap in their media of strong women role models. There is a lack of strong female representation. Society is on the brink of a revolutionary change where women are no longer expected to be submissive but rather in a role of power regardless of the male narrative. This cultural change needs to occur where women aren’t seen as the sole caretakers of children and the household.
“We do not have a glass ceiling, and we have a concrete and steel ceiling for women,” because the values of leadership are often living in the past and not thinking of the future or improving lifestyles of the workers and society.
This quote illustrates the exact reality Japan’s corporate world is facing at this very moment. It is vital to comprehend that women need to be included in the workforce with the diminishing population crisis. Women do not only have a place in the workforce but have a responsibility to be used to their full potential. By limiting a woman to administrative roles, her full potential is at risk of being ignored or overlooked. Furthermore, training courses are critical to breaking traditional waves of thought. Women should no longer be overlooked and need to recognize their own ability, power and importance within the system to gain the confidence needed to pursue their ambitions. The role of women traditionally is to work until they can bear children and then become a household function. This is a lack of a major resource in the economy. The corporate world should reflect more flexibility to support employees with families and break traditional ideologies in a forward-thinking manner.
Career Advancement Improvements
All involved parties should be utilized to their full potential, and to achieve that, one approach might use a fast track system that is not limited by gender or nationality.
The previous rotational system that protects the classical Japanese lifetime employment scheme deters from evoking competitiveness within the workplace. The sense of loyalty, a sense that once you’ve made into a company, that company becomes a part of your commitments and a sense of overwhelming loyalty to the company is exuded.
Another suggestion is the use of “Self-branding workshops.” Adopting this scheme would allow for vision-setting to be made more easily and goal setting to be a realistic and accessible skill for each employee to have regardless of nationality or gender. This levels the playing field and also induces confidence in the individual in their respective workplace.
Impact of Covid-19 for Transformation
Japanese companies can take advantage of recent changes triggered by COVID-19 to accelerate transformation. Many companies have logistical difficulties that discourage them from perpetuating the teleworking practice. Those difficulties include handling performance measurement, info security issues, commutation allowance, electricity/Wifi bills at home, fairness with GENBA (on site) people, and conflict with the existing work rules/regulations/agreement with unions, etc.
It seems the desire/willingness of many company leaders to continue the new working practice is not strong enough to go through all the efforts to overcome those difficulties mentioned above.
In the US, companies offer choices of different work styles for employees to choose from. However, in Japan, people are used to consistency across the board. The traditional group mentality is probably not allowing the idea of making the work-style an individual choice from various options.
Companies seem to be waiting for the standardization of the new corporate work-style to emerge so that they can follow. They do not want to be the first to launch a big change because they may have to redo it after such a standard practice comes along.
COVID-19 is not a one-off risk. COVID-19 continues, and any other similar threats could happen soon. Telework is not just some nice-to-have initiative. It is a necessary response for human safety, and it has to come down from the top management with a clear explanation of the reasons for the change and the benefits of the new work-style.
Except for young people and those in tech fields, most Japanese people seem to want to go back to their old normal work style. Probably it is because they are still not comfortable with the concept of flexwork. It is called flexwork because it allows you to work flexibly. So flexwork is not compatible with the group mentality. But still many Japanese people have a very strong group mentality. So they probably don’t know how to handle the sudden individual freedom offered by the new way of working.
Japanese are so rigid and conservative in the corporate world, but they could be very modern, even funky in their private life. They must be enjoying some online games and communications in their private life. Only if they could apply the same willingness and experience into their corporate life, Japanese companies could also embrace the new work-styles despite all the changes they have to make logistically.
The Japanese company system is vintage and deserves to be renovated so it can tackle the problems of the future and gain a vantage point to come out on top when facing oncoming issues. Japan’s history as a nation of strong international influence both economically and politically, in the region and globally can only be kept if it accepts its international future.
Develop employees global leadership skills despite the limitations caused by pandemic and other uncertainties?
The willingness of Japanese people to go abroad is probably less than before. It could be probably due to social unrest overseas which discourages them to take risks and make them rather stay safe in Japan. But it is probably caused by Japan’s economic situation as well. Decades ago, the Japanese could afford to pay for travel, send their kids and employees overseas for education. But now, many Japanese cannot afford to do the same.
Technological advancement has made it less necessary to go abroad. You can discuss online and work remotely. Much less need to travel, live and work abroad. Online works well for those who are already internationally experienced and can collaborate globally. But how about those who are yet to be developed to be international? The question is “Can people become global leaders online without actually going overseas?”
Actual living and working experience abroad cannot be substituted by online meetings with foreign colleagues. In order to develop people as international professionals, we need to provide non-Japanese surroundings, enough length and enough frequency of exposure to such surroundings. Therefore, online experience alone is not sufficient.
Most Japanese can survive a one-hour online meeting in English but they need to be immersed in the global culture all day everyday and survive in order to become international leaders. However, we may be able to create an online environment that could provide similar experience abroad through a tie-up session with foreign countries in the similar time zones or an advanced VR/AR games, etc., and by doing it for a long time with enough frequency.
For those Japanese who speak fairly good English, companies should encourage them to use more English among themselves. If the topic is not so heavy and complicated, they should practice English among themselves. Peer pressure is a strong force for the Japanese. If their colleagues have better English communication skills, they would feel pressure to catch up.
In Germany, Italy, France, Canada etc, people talk among the same country people in their native language but when a foreigner who does not understand the local language joins the conversation, they can easily switch the language to English. Somehow, many Japanese people do not/cannot do that. It is not due to the language issue. It is an attitude issue. Many foreigners do not speak English well either but they don’t care about the level of their English and still try to communicate. But many Japanese have this attitude of hesitancy, shyness and exclusion of foreigners. It has to be changed if they are to be international leaders.
In Japanese schools, English is still a subject that students learn about. But English should be a tool with which students can learn and express themselves beyond Japan. The positioning of English language should be changed in the Japanese education system.
The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most globalized areas where everyone, regardless of country, region, etc., works to fulfill unmet medical needs. Unlike cars where people tend to characterize the performance or the appearances by the originating country, in the pharmaceutical industry, it really doesn’t matter where the “seed” of the medicine originates. It is the efficacy and safety of the seed that counts.
Very simply, if that seed is assumed to fulfill an unmet medical need, then drug development members all over the world will support its delivery worldwide.
This was the reason I returned to Japan to work in the pharmaceutical industry after spending 8 years of my “teenage” in the US. Knowing how language and self-expression may be a barrier for the majority of the Japanese, I thought I’d be useful since I know the Japanese and the Western culture.
My thought was correct, and I was often appreciated internally (with Western culture managements ) and externally in untangling problems. I supported in delivering strong messages on the strength of Japan, which was usually hidden by Japan’s high-context culture. I also supported by adding explanations on the logic behind comments coming from Western members which were quite natural to me but sounded radical for Japanese members.
After several years in the industry, I realized that members who once experienced global drug development together really worked well in the next round. The strength of each regional team was recognized and fully used, and the global development teams really worked as “one team”.
Then I thought…, it is such a waste of time trying to fill in the gaps due to cultural differences when there’s no doubt in each member that everyone is working towards the same goal – the patient’s health.